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The Smell of Bread, Cold Winter Mornings, and the Existential Effects of Living Next to Mike’s Bakery

How one man’s bread got me through tough times

By Joe LucaPublished about a month ago 6 min read
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Pixabay Image - by MP 1746

I love food.

Especially the smell of fresh bread baking.

The warmth. The texture. How it responds to butter and air and our innate desire to survive another day. To put in place some part of ourselves so that we’re remembered. So, we don’t fade away, like a photograph left on the sill.

Food is life I suppose. Nothing less complicated than that. And yet its influence on who we are and how we arrived here should never be minimized.

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The smell of bread being baked in Mike’s Bakery could be smelled on 66th Street where I lived. Could rouse a hungover teenager from a deep yet restless sleep. Make him think long and hard about repeating what he did the night before.

Pull him up and out of bed and though not capable of wrestling him into a pair of jeans and sweatshirt, it could make the effort bearable while the residue of bad dreams and loneliness slowly left his body.

1969 was a year of extremes. The Beatles released Abbey Road and I got to listen to Here Comes the Sun a thousand times, until the melody took root in my subconscious, while I rode the B Train every morning to high school and pretended everything was alright.

Woodstock happened in the summer of ‘69. A celebration our generation sorely needed. And though I never gotten closer to Yasgur’s Farm than 69th Street and 12th Avenue, I reveled in its happening. Talking endlessly to those who got within 10 miles of it, before traffic clogged all roads north of Yonkers. Sharing experiences, we almost had, which was interestingly enough, a lot better than we thought it would be.

It was also the year the Vietnam War became true prime-time viewing. The awkward and mind-numbing equivalent of binge-watching Seinfeld Monday through Friday, while tracking the stats of the dead and wounded rolling across the screen, like some macabre experiment while many of us waited for the next draft lottery to dictate our future.

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Mike was a direct descendent of Michelangelo, of this I am certain. Though in our community, Italian bread was ubiquitous, he was able to craft loaves that transcended everything else offered at the A & P or bakeries all along Dyker Heights.

They were works of art, displayed elegantly out front like necklaces at Tiffany’s. People stood transfixed outside his store, drawn to it from Fifth Avenue to New Utrecht by the smell. Hoping that there would be some left before it was their turn to step inside.

And yet Mike didn’t charge Tiffany prices. He never gouged. He never played the arrogant baker role, dictating who could and could not buy his bread.

He smiled and nodded. Conversed little. Spent his days in meditation beyond the swinging door; his sanctum sanctorum where the magic happened.

Where flour, yeast, and water were transformed into the Pieta and David, and the common folk could come and admire them before putting cash on the counter and taking them home.

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I didn’t lose anyone in 1969. That happened three years earlier when food played its part in another of life’s little tragedies. Stepping out of a restaurant on a Saturday night, my dad died moments before stepping into our car.

A meal that all five of us shared. Not a usual thing as we mostly ate at home. But there was something special going on that night. Something I have long since forgotten or never really knew.

We ate well, Dad paying the check, as we wandered into the parking lot, me holding onto my little sister’s hand, as our world changed forever.

And food was right there to witness it.

As it always is. On the table. In our minds. Forming a part of our lives that was, relatively speaking under our control. And Mike provided an accompaniment to whatever we prepared. Like Mozart and Beethoven provided the soundtrack for living, Mike did his bit to make our daily life a little better, a little more put together.

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The one class I failed in all my school years came in 1969. A Speech class for a young man whose personality at that time made “awkward” seem like an extrovert.

Communication was for someone who had something to say. I was convinced I didn’t.

One student after another stepped up to the front of the class, notes in hand. Heart in throat. Self-confidence on the floor being ground into dust, as a kind/heartless/overly pretentious teacher critiqued everyone until the absence of self-esteem in that classroom threatened to create a vacuum that would suck all of us out into space.

So, I stopped showing up. I played hooky. Went absent. Forged by mother’s signature on notices sent to my home. Got stoned with my friends. Justified the guilt I felt as the teacher’s fault. As God’s way of testing me one time too many. And finally, as one more reason why Mike was the only true hero I would ever know.

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Bread is life. Bread feeds the belly. Nourishes the soul. Assuages the guilt for not having done anything meaningful in life while still allowing us to feel there’s still a chance at redeeming ourselves.

As such Mike’s Bakery was a portal to another dimension. A Portkey, ala Harry Potter, that could take an average person and bring them to another place; erase their past, reset the odds, forgive the transgressions that stalk us all and just give them a fucking moment to themselves without judgment.

A little bread, a glass of wine, a slice of provolone (imported, not domestic), and if Luck was handy and willing, a little love to envelop the pair and let everything else fade away.

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I ended 1969 as I entered it. Running desperately in front of a moving bus. Zigging and zagging, refusing to be run down or cast aside, while I believed, with all the might and intention I could muster, that life and love and even sex would be mine that year. That my aspirations were no longer to be mocked. That my dreams could sit at the same table. And hope would be let out from the basement and all of us could dine together.

But 1970 came in looking a lot like 1969. Each day handing off to the next, without a lot of joy or conviction that things were getting better.

And yet they were. Not emotionally, the lows were pretty hazardous back then, but the will was growing stronger. I took from each moment I could control a little something I would bring into the next day. And eventually, they all added up to a decision to leave.

I loved Brooklyn. My parents took me away from it in 1960 and that’s when my world started falling apart so the last thing, I wanted to do was to leave her again. But I had to. What remained there for me wasn’t enough. It never would be.

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I remember the last time I went into Mike’s. It was a Saturday. I couldn’t sleep and walked to the bakery on 68th Street like I was walking to the end of a movie.

I stood outside and stared at the display. It was full. It was only 6:30 and the crowds hadn’t arrived yet, so I got to see it all and that was good enough.

I never said goodbye to Mike when I left Brooklyn. Never crossed the threshold, looked behind the curtain, and thanked him for saving me. But I think he would understand why I didn’t.

I like to think we were kindred in some way but I think it more likely that he was doing what he had to do to be whole and I was leaving Brooklyn for the same reason. That at least we shared.

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About the Creator

Joe Luca

Writing is meant to be shared, so if you have a moment come visit, open a page and begin. Let me know what you like, what makes you laugh, what made you cry - just a little. And when you're done, tell a friend. Thanks and have a great day.

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